Unreliable Narration in Cinema: Facing the Cognitive Challenge Arising from Literary Studies
by Per Krogh Hansen
Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology
So much for the first aspect I wanted to touch upon. The second concerns the change in ideology and historical context, and its potential effect on our understanding of a narrator's reliability.
I will here turn my attention towards a film which at first seems as if it is being told in an conventional objective mode, but by the very end opens for another possibility.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Das Leben der Anderen (2006) is concerned with the period of the cold war and divided Germany. The story takes place in East Berlin in 1984, where the Stasi agent Wiesler, a convinced supporter of the communist regime, is assigned to monitor playwright Georg Dreyman, who is suspected of Western leanings. Secretly, Dreyman's apartment is being bugged, and Wiesler himself is in charge of the surveillance. But Wiesler soon finds out that the real reason why Dreyman is being spied on is that a minister is attracted to Dreyman's girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria; if Dreyman is arrested, the minister will have free rein. This demotivates Wiesler.
Dreyman is a supporter of the regime, but dislikes the way dissidents are treated. When an artist friend commits suicide because of his marginalisation, Dreyman anonymously publishes an article in West Germany on the neglect of suicide rates in the GDR.
Wiesler observes this development, but via his monitoring has gained an understanding of Dreyman, and starts lying in his reports in order to protect him. When Christa-Maria is arrested for drug abuse, she turns Dreyman in, but Wiesler removes the evidence from the apartment before the search team arrives. Unaware of this, Christa-Maria walks away in shame, and dies when she is hit by truck. As a result, the operation becomes pointless; hence Wiesler's chief officer, Anton Grubitz, calls it off and ensures the end of Wiesler's career.
At the end of the film, after German reunification, Dreyman finds out the truth while searching through his file in the Stasi archives. He finds out Wiesler's location and sees that he has meanwhile become a distributor of leaflets. Dreyman does not approach Wiesler, but writes a book called 'Die Sonate vom Guten Menschen' dedicated to "HGW XX/7" (Wiesler's Stasi code name). When Wiesler buys the book and the bookseller asks him if he is to wrap it as a present, Wiesler responds: "Nein. Es ist für mich."
Even though critical voices were raised against the tendency to caricature, Das Leben der Anderen has been highly praised for its realistic depiction of the horrors of the former communist state, and this is of course a very important layer in the film. But one cannot but be astonished by the fact that no critic has paid attention to the complexities and ambiguities raised in the final sequence about Dreyman writing a novel about the incidents since an obvious conclusion for the spectator is that what we have witnessed, the film we have seen, is this novel, so to say, that is: Dreyman's recollection of what happened then and his reconstruction of the events. And when one follows this strategy, the film turns into a rather different story.
First of all the status of Dreyman's novel is rather dubious: Dreyman makes an effort to find Wiesler, but he never approaches him to check whether his understanding of the events is right. Spectators who trust the text would probably claim that this is due to the fact that Wiesler at one and the same time was Dreyman's persecutor and saviour, and that Dreyman's gratitude to Wiesler doesn't include forgiveness. But considered from the perspective of the film being told by Dreyman, there are more obvious reasons - namely that contacting Wiesler on this issue might disturb the picture he himself has constructed. The fact is that Dreyman must have written his book based on his own memory and what he learned from studying his file in the Stasi archive. Here, however, there is no evidence of e.g. Maria being forced to turn him in or of Dreyman turning from a regime-supporting artist into an undercover dissident, or of Wiesler's motivation for covering Dreyman - if he actually did cover anything. All these events are - if the film is a depiction of Dreyman's novel - pure speculation and construction.
This of course doesn't change the general theme of the film - i.e. what the effects of suppression and totalitarian systems are. But it adds another layer to this story, one which we might approach by way of Phelan's ethical criticism.
According to Phelan, ethical criticism is a matter of binding "ethical response to the techniques of narrative itself", by focusing "on the links among technique (the signals offered by the text) and the reader's cognitive understanding, emotional response, and ethical positioning." (Phelan 2005: 22) Phelan goes on to specify this ethical positioning as being established through the dynamic interaction between four ethical situations, that of the characters, that of the narrator, that of the Implied Author, and that of the empirical reader. I am not going to get involved in the never-ending discussion of whether it makes sense to operate with an Implied Author in film - but instead intend to make a swift adjustment to Phelan's conception and substitute 'Implied Author' by a term suggested by Manfred Jahn: 'FCD' - the Filmic Composition Device being the corporate principle for filmic communication.
If Das Leben der Anderen is considered as objectively told, one would say that the ethical positioning primarily takes place between the reader, the characters and the FCD, insofar as the narrator is anonymous and the characters function as rather flat and stereotyped figures, with the exception of the two protagonists developing from bad guy into good guy (Wiesler), and from not all that good a guy to good guy (Dreyman). Everyone else plays their more or less expected role - that is of puppets in the hands of FCD in a piece about the value of sincerity, goodness and humanity.
If the movie is told by Dreyman, the ethical positioning changes from the FCD level to that of the narrator (being Dreyman) and his relation to the person he was earlier, according to the Stasi files (the regime-supporting artist), and the one he want us to see he was (a good human being), which also might be indicated by his name: Dreyman, drei man, three persons; and at the same time the active interaction of the reader is being stressed. We are put in a position of dynamic interpretative response, where we not only are supposed to perceive a story being told but have to reconstruct it actively by negotiating and evaluating what we have been told. In that sense we are not only recipients of a story, but also re-tellers insofar as we, as soon as we realise that what we have been watching might not be the 'real' story, perform an act of re-evaluation of the story. When we do so, we find a lot of details make better sense than they did in our former approach: e.g. that Stasi and the minister are caricatured (we laugh at their stupidity in spite of the seriousness of the topic), and that the only person who seems to be a sincerely good man (vis-à-vis the title of Dreyman's book) is Dreyman himself: He shows understanding towards the relationship between his fiancée and the minister; he understands the dissidents, but balances himself somewhere in-between loyalty and responsibility. We are also given a reason for him not contacting Wiesler: If he made contact with him, he would no longer be in absolute control of the story. From this perspective another dimension is added to the title of the movie: Das Leben der Anderen not only refers to the border between dissidents and the regime supporters - but also refers to the life Dreyman would liked to have lived - but that he failed to accomplish.
My aim with this - rather schematic - reading of Das Leben der Anderen is not to claim that the first suggested understanding of the film is wrong. Rather the point is to show that the film is open to both readings because of a potential instability in the narration. The question of why no critic of the film has detected this potential and, would I say, plausible understanding of the film is impossible to give a clear answer to. But we might at least achieve some understanding by comparing with similar texts where the trust in the narrator's account has changed utterly - like for instance Marlow's from Conrad's Heart of Darkness. As most of you know, it was not until 1958, with Guerard's book Conrad the Novelist, that we began to realise "that the story is not primarily about Kurtz or about the brutality of Belgian officials but about Marlow its narrator" (Guerard 1958: 37). - Perhaps because the brutality of imperialism was very urgent when the first readings of the story was made, just as the horrors of the socialist regime are in the contemporary context of Das Leben der Anderen. As time passes, the grey shades of initially black-and-white historical tragedies become more visible to us; - and perhaps even more urgent for us to recognise.
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